In 2001, a Yale Ph.D. student named Jason Sorens published an essay decrying the ineffectiveness of libertarians like himself in American politics. “Libertarian activists need to face a somber reality: nothing’s working,” he wrote.
Why? Libertarians are too dispersed to do much good, he argued. They should move to the same place to live out their values in community and see what might be accomplished. He invited sympathetic libertarians to sign a pledge to relocate to an unnamed state within five years of this effort, which he dubbed the Free State Project, getting 20,000 commitments.
Sorens and other Free State activists chose New Hampshire as the site of their experiment, attracted by the state’s small population and tradition of flinty New England individualism. Some Free Staters didn’t wait for the group to cross the 20,000 threshold: they pulled up stakes and moved straight to the granite hills. Sorens was among them—two years ago, he took a position as a lecturer at Dartmouth College in Hanover.
In February, the Free State Project finally reached its target number of pledges. “It’s resonating with people who are really looking for solutions,” Carla Gericke, the group’s president, told the Associated Press on the occasion. “A lot of people like to sit around and complain, and what this really is, is activist-driven. These are people who have goals and want to see them achieved.”
For at least a decade, I myself have been sitting around and complaining—about America’s moral decline, corruption in the churches, and the emergence of a post-Christian nation. The “Benedict Option” is the name for the solution I have been touting. I take the name from Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue, in which he urges virtuous people to concentrate on building local forms of community within which to live out their beliefs. MacIntyre says we await a new, quite different St. Benedict, the sixth-century monk who founded monasticism in the West.
The Free State Project strikes me as a libertarian version of the Benedict Option. So at the height of the primary season, when conventional politics is so often at its worst, Jason Sorens and I talked about how our visions compare and contrast. (The transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
Rod Dreher: By its very nature, modernity dissolves traditional bonds. You and I surely disagree on whether or not that’s a good or a bad thing. For me, as a traditional Christian, I see late modernity as disastrous for the faith. It’s paradoxical, but it seems to me that in America the only way traditional Christian institutions and communities can survive is within a generally libertarian political order.
Jason Sorens: I’d actually concede that traditional bonds enjoy a presumption of utility simply from their long duration. They should be put to the test, but we should also be open to the possibility that, in the absence of conclusive evidence for or against them, they will often have hidden virtues that explain their persistence over the generations.
I’d say modernity has overall been an enormous good to the human race, but I worry about many of the same issues of freedom of association that you do, and while I’m not a believer myself, I understand why Christians who take their faith seriously see contemporary culture as a grave threat to its future.
RD: I was talking recently with a Republican friend who has gotten involved full-time in the fight for religious liberty. He’s a strongly pro-market guy, but he said he had no real idea until he began working for religious liberty how active and how powerful national and multinational business interests were in pressuring states to back away from any religious liberty protections that conflicted with the LGBT community’s priorities. And it’s working. Republicans, we are finding, are less pro-liberty than they are pro-business.
JS: I agree. The seeds of the current problem were sown when the country moved away from the traditional doctrines of private property and liberty of contract to the progressive-statist idea that private property must be molded to social ends. Many, perhaps most, Americans now think that if a private business owner refuses to trade with a prospective customer, that’s somehow an act of violence against the customer, and the government should get involved to stop it. Where does the principle end? Can the government now fine you if you discriminate in whom you select as friends, as dinner guests, or as a mate? Or perhaps when money is involved, it’s just different, somehow?
Once the principle is conceded that government may punish those who discriminate in private affairs, it opens politics up to a war of all against all over whose friends are protected and whose enemies punished. Next, will the government punish those who discriminate on the grounds of political ideology? Progressives would hate that; universities would face a deluge of lawsuits.
I like Robert Nozick’s idea in Anarchy, State, and Utopia of a free society as a utopia of utopias. Each little utopia enjoys its own autonomy to decide on and enforce rules for its members, so long as those members are free to leave. The big utopia—the “framework,” he calls it—just makes sure that everyone’s rights are protected in the process. Americans like constraint, to a point.
Look at homeowners’ associations: their control runs down to what kind of doorknob you can have on your house, but they have sprouted up everywhere, because people want security for their lifestyle and property values. A libertarian world would have many constraints, but they would be freely chosen constraints subject to a kind of market test. Failing communities would be allowed to fail.
We can only get from here to there once the many minorities that make up the cultures of this country start to realize that they’re better off living according to their own values in peace than fighting the political war to control others. It is good that many Christians are realizing the benefits of pacific autonomy over the struggle for dominance; for too long the dominance-based politics of James Dobson and Jerry Falwell have drowned out other voices.
RD: The Benedict Option has drawn criticism for being too inward-looking. It’s a stereotype that I constantly have to combat.
JS: The Free State Project’s experience suggests this criticism is ill-founded. Spatial concentration makes outreach easier. We only get the kind of society we envision if Free Staters get active once they move. The FSP is about discussing and demonstrating ideas, not outvoting the natives.
In the same way, Christians will be more effective at evangelism when they concentrate together. That doesn’t mean walling off into communes, but living in ordinary neighborhoods with a strong salting of fellow comrades and the social, emotional, spiritual, and financial support only they can provide. Space matters for economic production—that’s why places like Silicon Valley exist—so why wouldn’t it matter for the productivity of other endeavors too?
RD: I’m working on a book about the Benedict Option now and meeting people from all over who are engaged in the kind of community-building you’re talking about, but in an orthodox Christian vein. For Ben Op Christians, we must live in the world, but in order to live in the world as Christians, and to be for the world what our faith tells us we must be, salt and light, we have to live in a different way.
JS: The temptations of modern life and pressures of the state seem to me to be particular problems for transmitting faith down the generations. If Christian life is exactly like secular life except for church on Sundays and a few minor politenesses, faith begins to look dispensable. If Christians really believe the moral teaching they espouse, they are called on to break from the conventional American lifestyle in several significant, radical ways.
In the Free State Project, we’re united by a common political philosophy but not necessarily a common morality. Trusting that your fellows will respect your rights is an essential prerequisite for association, but it’s not a sufficient condition. As a result, the “Porcupine community”—after our logo, we use the term “Porcupines” or just “Porcs” for Free Staters who have moved and local liberty lovers who may not ever have signed up for the FSP—subdivides into various subcultures and smaller communities. These are polycentric, in that you might do play-dates and other family events with other Porc families, help out politically with the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance, and go to Community Market Day to buy and sell. And we all have our friends and associates outside the Porc community at work, school, or play.
There’s a certain tolerance that goes along with this polycentricity. Orthodox Christians go to political or social events organized by polyamorous atheists, and vice versa—not that tolerance implies acceptance. You know that you’ll be working alongside people in one area while disagreeing with—and even not wanting to associate with—them in some other area, and so you learn how to get along and support each other. Now, there are limits to tolerance too, and in a very few cases I can think of, those limits have been reached. Like any large community, there are all kinds of different people, none of us perfect, and there are gossip, disagreements, and even unfriendings.
Despite all that, it works really well. It’s a large enough group of people that you can always find those whom you trust and with whom you develop fast friendships. In fact, it’s too large a group by far to know everyone in it. There are almost 5,000 Free Staters—signed-up participants and friends—in New Hampshire now.
RD: You Free Staters already have people on the ground. I’m trying now to identify people around the country who are already living out a version of the Benedict Option. I’m meeting young Christian agrarians, classical educators, and others who not only have an argument but more importantly have a story to tell. They’re incarnating this ideal now. They’re happy, hopeful people, not miserable Bible-thumpers holed up in a bunker waiting for the end.
The thing is, so many of us today are being terribly damaged by growing up without roots of any sort, or any sense that life has a transcendent purpose, meaning, and direction. We have to get outside of our heads, and relearn that the narrative modernity hands us is not the last word, nor even the most persuasive word.
JS: That sense of ultimate, perhaps even transcendent, purpose has been vital to the success of the Free State Project as well. Those who have moved so far generally have a keen sense of justice and of the potentially historic significance of what they’re doing. People aren’t giving tens of thousands of volunteer hours a year just to better their own condition. They want to see everyone enjoy more freedom.
My guess is that, like the FSP, Ben Op communities will work best when they are not strongly hierarchical and are at least somewhat polycentric. Most people fear the commune lifestyle, and for some good reasons. Again, you can bring together a generous “salting” of committed Christians into a particular neighborhood in order to live a life more fully dedicated to God without cutting off from the modern economy or evangelism.
Mormons have done this in Utah. And while Christians will disagree with many Mormon doctrines, the evidence suggests that Mormons have done an excellent job of building communities, educating their own, sustaining their own numbers, and helping the poor. Utah is a really nice place to live. Real poverty is low, crime is low, and social isolation is low, especially if you are Mormon. But the vast majority of them don’t live in separatist communes. If anything, I wish Utahns would do more to assert their political autonomy and cultural distinctiveness.
RD: You say that you want to see everyone enjoy more freedom, but what is that freedom for? For us, it would be for virtue, not in the narrow sense of obeying the moral law, but in the broader sense of living harmoniously with God and in His creation. It is, however, an anthropological and theological fact that for virtue to mean anything, it requires freedom. When a community makes its bonds among members, and between individuals and the collective, too thick—well, there are serious problems. This is the chief threat to the Benedict Option.
JS: I suspect few partisans of freedom value it entirely for its own sake. There are libertines, to be sure, but most libertarians, fortunately, aren’t libertines. If the FSP tried to become a thick community, it would dissolve in disputes and power struggles, because libertarians differ so widely on their other moral values and priorities. Free Staters have developed a metaphor of the FSP as a mere “bus” to get people to New Hampshire, and once here, the other things they do are up to them.
RD: On the other hand, if the bonds are too thin, or too loose, the community loses the vision and the purpose that binds it. It seems to me that this is the chief threat to Free State Project Communities. The reason many of us traditionalists get anxious about libertarians is we don’t see how any kind of stable community of virtue can come about absent a shared commitment to a transcendent source of morality. You, however, are a “virtue libertarian.” How does that work? And how will libertarian virtues keep the Free State Project communities coherent and purposeful, as opposed to falling apart into anarchy?
JS: I share many of the values that traditionalist Christians hold and generally think that Christian faith is good for people, which is why I am rooting for your Ben Op. I see it like this: the most essential element of a virtuous society is freedom. As you note, one can’t be virtuous without having freedom to make choices. For that reason, I’m a libertarian.
Now, I realize that in the political realm I can’t bring about the freedom I want to see if I work only with virtue libertarians. For that reason, I’m happy to make common cause, through the Free State Project, with those who share my political commitments and enthusiasm for getting things done but may not share my comprehensive vision of the good. At the same time, I can promote that vision of the good to those who do not yet share it, and in my close friendships associate with those who do already share it.
Now, if you break promises or steal or threaten, you will at minimum be shunned. I can think of one example: the person left the state for good shortly after being exposed. Also, if you promote aggression or bigotry rhetorically, the FSP will formally disown you. Even in the loosest community—that of political philosophy—there are basic standards to which every participant is held accountable. Those standards are typically higher for the thicker sub-communities that Free Staters have formed.
The Liberty Ecclesia fellowship is an example of this for Christian Free Staters. They eat together regularly and do outreach at PorcFest, our annual summer festival, though they haven’t gone fully Ben Op. Many Free Staters take the view, with which I have some sympathy, that you can’t fully trust someone who is willing to impose his values or priorities by force. For that reason, they prefer to associate with other libertarians for business ventures, home school co-ops, social clubs, and so on. But that doesn’t rule out developing more intensive fellowship with those who share not only your political philosophy but your broader worldview as well.
Will the FSP last as a community? No; it’s not designed to. We plan to wind up the FSP organization in roughly five years. But the broader liberty community is here to stay and works surprisingly well for all its internal diversity.
RD: It’s not clear to me why libertarians need the Free State Project. I mean, why can’t they achieve their goals within mainstream society, given how individualist we are now and are becoming? What am I missing?
JS: We might be a more atomized society, but we are not necessarily a more tolerant one. Toleration does not mean accepting all choices as good or worthwhile; it means rejecting coercion as a tool to change people’s non-coercive choices. We’ve moved gradually from a society in which a Christian majority tried to dictate to everyone else to a society in which a secular majority tries to dictate its own wishes. The strongest barrier to tyranny of the majority has long been an engaged judiciary that takes the Bill of Rights seriously, but this is still a weak barrier. The courts are only a little more autonomous of public opinion than the elected branches. We need to change public opinion, and we can’t do that nationally, in my view—it’s too big a lift. Hence the Free State Project.
I think libertarians can learn from Christians pursuing the Benedict Option that real, lived freedom cannot depend simply on an abstract political philosophy. It needs deep cultural roots and social solidarity. Robert Nozick himself came to realize this; in order to survive, a free society, especially a small one, needs symbols around which its citizens can rally and even a strong sense of duty to country.
RD: You FSP folks say that when people realize that “pro-limited government activism at a national level doesn’t work,” they look for alternatives. You are much farther along the road than we Ben Op people are in this respect, but I do believe there’s a good lesson for us in this realization. We can vote for socially conservative candidates all we like, but the real action has to take place in the local community if it’s going to be effective. Tell me how FSP came to the conclusion that the revolution, so to speak, has to be local if it’s going to be at all.
JS: Mere observation. Look at the types of people who win the presidency and leadership positions in Congress year after year after year. D.C. is wholly owned by K Street and people who are ideologically and professionally committed to centralization. They hold all the cards. No decentralist movement can hope to challenge them on their own turf, but we might—just might—have a shot at being left alone.
Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative.